By Richie Unterberger
With its captivating bass line, anthemic chorus, male-female vocal interplay, and lyrics entirely in tune with the swell of cooperative spirit engulfing American youth in the late 1960s, Friend & Lover's "Reach Out of the Darkness" became a Top Ten hit in the summer of 1968. The duo's album of the same name didn't fare as well, the sessions divided between several producers, the record label failing to capitalize on the momentum of the smash single. Reach Out of the Darkness would be Friend & Lover's sole album, though the male half of the duo, Jim Post, went on to a long and ongoing career in folk, children's music, and the theater.
Born in Houston and raised in the woods of southeast Texas, Post was not actually from a rock'n'roll background, even if he found himself with a huge self-composed pop-rock hit on his hands in the late 1960s. "I lived in 100,000 acres of forest, about five to ten miles up the river from the San Jacinto Battleground where Texas won its freedom," he remembers today, speaking from his Illinois home. "I didn't know I was a folk musician until I went to Chicago, and some people at the Old Town School of Folk Music said, 'Well, you're a folk singer.' But there's a difference between a folk singer who grew up in Chicago and decided to be a folk singer, and someone who grew up in the deep woods, going to those revival meetings and those dances and stuff, and coming straight out of it. We didn't think of it as folk music."
While Jim was in his first folk duet, a gig opening for country star Eddy Arnold led to a meeting with Chet Atkins. As Post recalls, "I sang a couple songs to him. Chet said, 'Jim, I'd like you to come to Nashville. I think you would do real good there. I'd like to produce you.' I've always been a person of faithful heart, and we were about to go on tour. I said, 'Well, we could come as a duet,' and he said, 'I don't want you to come as a duet. I want you to come.' And I never went. I hadn't grown a brain yet," he laughs.
Post did get out of Texas after joining the Houston folk group the Rum Runners. "Our first tour was the Playboy tour, so I went from singing church music revivals to the Playboy tour," he says. "We were in Alberta, doing the big fairs, and that's when I met my partner, a dancer. She lived in Chicago Ridge, right south of Chicago. Went to Chicago, married her probably two months after I met her, maybe more, I'm not sure." He formed a folk duo with his new wife Cathy Conn, the twosome building their popularity at the Chicago club Earl of Old Town, which was instrumental to the success of several local musicians to emerge from the city's busy folk scene, including John Prince, Bonnie Koloc, and Steve Goodman.
Like hundreds if not thousands of fellow American folk musicians of the '60s, the pair would soon move into rock music as Friend & Lover, Post (who wrote their material) being the "Friend" and Conn the "Lover." They got their record deal by presenting their case right in front of Verve executive Jerry Schoenbaum in New York. "He said, 'You have to send me a tape, 'cause I never listen to people in person, because I'm affected by the way they look,' which is kind of strange when you think about it. And I said to him, 'Well, why don't you turn and look out the window, and we'll sing for you?'" laughs Jim. "So he turned and looked out the window, and when he turned around, there was a big smile on his face -- 'you know, we could do this.' That's how that happened."
Post's composition "Reach Out of the Darkness" was recorded in Nashville, the production credited to Joe South -- not long before South, already an established session musician, songwriter, and producer on the Southern recording scene, would himself become a star artist -- and Bill Lowery. As Post points out, it was a most unusual recording for its time, particularly as it uses "a bass as the lead, and has no verses. In musical terms, it's all choruses and refrains. The bass player didn't have any idea what to play, and I didn't. You gotta realize, I knew nothing about rock'n'roll. I was really in church music and backwoods music; that's where I grew up. The bass player said, 'What do I play there?' And I just went, 'Play'" -- here Jim breaks off to hum the song's familiar bass riff -- "which basically followed almost the melody of the song. Ray Stevens" -- also a busy session musician, in addition to recording hit records under his own name -- "played all the keyboards, and arranged the strings."
The single took a long time to take off, adds Post, as initially, "the only place that played 'Reach Out of the Darkness' was [the small Northern California town] Chico. It sold about twice as many as the #1 song normally sells in a little town." Nationwide, however, "the record just sat there, I don't know, six, seven months, and didn't do anything. We figured the record was gone and dead. But they had a Selective Service sit-in in California, because there was a hearing on Selective Service or something like that, and they arrested 3,000 people. They took them out to Kezar field [then used as the San Francisco 49ers' football stadium, in Golden Gate Park]." As Jim remembers, it was at that point where a promo man who "had had faith in 'Reach Out' for a long time sent copies to every radio station in the Bay Area with a letter. Then he grabbed a sound truck, went out to Kezar field, and started playing the music on the sound truck. About six o'clock that afternoon, they were playing it almost back-to-back in San Francisco, and that's what started it."
After the ball was rolling, continues Post, "it hit up and down the west coast, and hit in the Midwest. The first time I heard it, we were driving down the Outer Drive in Chicago and turned the radio on, and there's 'Reach Out of the Darkness.' It totally blew our minds. But New York wouldn't go on it, so it started down the charts. Then someone shot Martin Luther King, and it went back up the charts. It sold enough to be a #1 record, but hit at different parts of the country at different times. So it never got to be #1, except on certain radio stations."
Post wrote all of the songs on the Reach Out of the Darkness album, but doesn't feel the LP was all it could have been. "Instead of recording the record in Nashville, they recorded it in Atlanta," he observes. "By that time Joe South wouldn't produce us. So I ended up with Buddy Buie, whose whole concern was trying to make us sound like bubblegum music. What we really needed was a strong creative hand, and we never got it." South is credited as the sole producer of a couple of tracks on the album, and Jim holds his talents in high regard: "Joe South really was an impressive person. Very laidback. I loved some of the songs he sang." But, he notes, "Buie forced [South's brother Tommy] on us for our drummer. He could play drums, but he couldn't keep the rhythm. And I had an Egyptian drummer. So I eventually forced him off. It created incredible stress in the studio."
Much of the album boasted full arrangements drawing from various influences in late-'60s pop-rock, soul, and psychedelia, with "Friend" (i.e. Post) getting to take a couple of solo vocals on "Room to Let (To Rowena With Love)" and "The Way We Were in the Beginning." Post, however, feels that "'Reach Out' is the only truly good track; our voices are wonderful on it. But what happened was the company, when 'Reach Out' hit, didn't take us seriously. They didn't get the [LP] out for nine months after they did it. I just think that they did not have a creative center themselves. Because if they did, they'd have listened to that album and said, 'What the hell did they do in Atlanta?' We needed somebody in the company, but they just weren't interested in us. Meanwhile, we were an incredible acid group by then. Jimmy Schwall of the old Siegel-Schwall blues band was our lead guitar player, and we were singing far-out stuff that never got recorded."
Despite the Top Ten success of "Reach Out of the Darkness," the LP didn't make the chart at all. Post and Conn would later divorce, and by the early 1970s Post was recording as a solo act. "I put Colorado Exile out on Fantasy Records," he says. "It went on 200 stations in the first week, and they dropped the ball completely. John Denver didn't happen for another six months. I was really on that wave, and Colorado Exile has some nice stuff in it for that era of music, especially 'Colorado Exile,' the song. I will tell you a great mistake I made on that album. Merl Saunders was playing for me, and he said to me, 'I played the work tape for Jerry Garcia, and he wants to play on your album.' And I said, 'Well, I already have a guitar player,'" Jim laughs. "I wish Merl would have said, 'Hey Jim, don't you understand what's being offered here?' If I'd have known Garcia was such a folkie...one of my favorite albums is Old & in the Way [the early-'70s bluegrass album featuring Garcia and David Grisman]. After Colorado Exile, I gave up on [Fantasy]. After Fantasy, I just gave up on commercial music."
Post hardly gave
itself, however. He's released more than 20 albums, often in the folk
children's music styles. He's created and toured widely in productions
combining music and drama in which he plays the role of Mark Twain, the
music from his Mark Twain and the Laughing River winning an
Library Association Award in 1997. He's written children's books, is
a novel, and also finds time to work on writing country songs. More
on Jim's music, concerts, and other activities can be found on his
www.jimpost.com. -- Richie Unterberger
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